There are many fascinations in life, but it seems the human species is wired to make life about connections, about relationships. True, film and television in particular create a whole lot of expertly choreographed action sequences, invent futuristic technology, explore theoretical physics, weave intricate plots, and introduce concepts believed to be new. And while these are thrilling, fascinating, and challenging, none of these tricks really matter unless you care about the people who encounter them.
In the end, people are what we care about, and to whom we can relate, regardless of anything else that goes on. Strip away the bells and whistles, the strobing lights and the strange phenomena, and you’ll see at the core of any film, TV series or play a story of triumph over tragedy, heroism in the face of adversity, enduring love that defies the odds, hope in the midst of darkness, and so on. Everything goes back to the people, and to their relationships with themselves and with one another.
Consider science fiction for a moment. Star Wars. Star Trek. LOST. The X Files. Fringe. What do you think of? Space ships? Phasers? Light sabers? Time travel? Aliens? Mutations? Spontaneous combustion? Genetic hybrids? Sure! Of course you do. Those things are cool. And yet, “Luke, I am your father” is one of the most famous lines in film history. Captain Kirk and Spock’s interspecies friendship defined a series. If you’re stranded on an island with a bunch of strangers, it’s how you bond with each other that dictates your survival–and why any of us would want for you to survive. Scully and Mulder (’nuff said). A man’s love for his son changes the course of history for more than one universe. Relationships, relationships, relationships.
Why is this important to know as an actor? It’s important because it is so easy to get wrapped up in “stage” direction and blocking, dialogue, choreography, costumes, props, camera angles, and everything else that we forget that the most important thing is your character, or your character’s relationship to your scene partner. How we relate to others helps define who we are, and the audience gleans a lot about your character, and a lot about how exactly things in the plot might unfold, by your characters relationship to the other characters. Every look, touch, gesture, posture, tone, word, and action inform these relationships.
Your audience will become engrossed in and relate to the pain you exhibit when you’re forced to say farewell to a loved one, to the joy you experience when your character welcomes a child into the world, to the anger you illustrate when you witness an injustice, to the hurt you feel when someone you trust betrays you. The audience ought to feel something for your character, whether that is love, sympathy, hatred, or pity. They ought to root for or against you. They ought to have an opinion about your character. They should want your relationship with another character to grow, change, fail, self-destruct, or mend. If a character should perish, they should be concerned with and anticipate just how that will affect your character.
When you are studying for a role, do not just explore the relationships your character has with the characters your audience will meet. Consider the relationships you character has had in the past, or has with people the audience will never see. These define your character as well, and will help you determine how to relate to those the audience does or will at some point see.
Life is a series of relationships, and art should imitate life.